Dealing with Fine "Whine"

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Laura Harris

Nobody likes a whiner.  There are legitimate concerns that can cause an employee to be disgruntled and each of us has probably been guilty of grumbling at work to some extent.  But then there are the workers who take complaining to a whole new level.  We’ve all worked with them—and sadly, they seem to thrive on creating chaos. 

Whining employees wreak havoc throughout an organization by draining energy from leaders and fellow employees.  Customers are also negatively impacted by having to deal with employees who are unhappy, cynical, or jaded.  In essence, you may be paying someone inside your organization to eliminate your best employees and customers.

Keep in mind that at times leaders must deliver potentially bad news.  If you face a situation where profits are down or wage/staff cuts may be required, deal with people honestly.  Employees may not always like the truth, but they prefer being informed and will ultimately respect your forthrightness.

Why Do Employees Whine?
There are four main varieties of whining:
1. Change-induced. There are employees at all levels who actually embrace change.  Unfortunately, in some organizations these individuals are few and far between. We live in a world of rapidly changing technology and frequent market and staff turnover, subsequently leaving many organizations in a constant state of flux.  Whining often increases when there is a resistance to change.

2. Self-induced.  Not everyone is a team player or feels an obligation to earn his or her daily bread. We have all worked with employees who seem to be lazy, have little ambition, or are prone to self-centeredness.  Sometimes even good employees can justify bad performance when their sense of entitlement convinces them that the company “owes” them.  This victim mentality can be contagious.

3. Stress-induced. Job-related and nonjob-related stress can crank up the need to vent. Organizations dealing with downsizing, job obsolescence, diminishing resources, or overwork are more likely to experience negative attitudes.  Employees struggling with personal issues such as financial strains, marital problems, or serious health concerns may choose to relieve some of their tension by complaining on the job.

4. Leader-induced. There are times when the culture of an organization can actually promote discontentment among employees.  Managers who do not delegate enough or are perceived to dump their responsibilities on the rank and file can create serious resentment.  Employees who feel unappreciated, unchallenged, or unheard can become negative.  Furthermore, an operation typically reflects the personality of its leadership.  Take an honest look at yourself to determine whether or not your attitude instigates or perpetuates grumbling.

Keep in mind that some adversity is natural and possibly even good for the team.  If you work in an organization where you never hear any complaining, then odds are it is happening behind your back.  There is also the possibility that leadership has created a culture where “freedom of speech” is not tolerated.  Keep in mind that when you stifle communication, you may also stifle creativity.

How Can You Prevent Whining?
Ideally an organization should do everything in its power to eliminate situations that cause whining.  To begin, take a look at employee practices to see if they create a positive environment.  Ask:

  • Is the company committed to creating ideal working conditions so employees remain loyal?
  • Are employees hired before they are needed so that existing staff is not overwhelmed?
  • Does the firm provide an employee handbook to prospective employees prior to hire to communicate expectations?
  • Is the potential employee tested to determine strengths and weaknesses?
  • Are employees expected to be knowledgeable and trained accordingly?
  • Is everyone cross-trained to reduce the chances that the company will be held hostage by an employee?
  • Does the company provide mentors to increase the likelihood of success?
  • Are performance review forms provided to job candidates so there are no surprises when they receive their first performance review?
  • Are reverse performance reviews conducted that allow employees to provide feedback regarding the effectiveness of management?
  • Are non-productive employees coached and dealt with in a timely manner?

How Can You Deal with Whiners?
Proactively designing an organization that runs smoothly will muzzle the voices of the grumblers but will certainly not silence them. Some whining is inevitable. Whining may bring out the fight or flight instinct.  How do you react when the troops are in an uproar?

There are important steps to take when dealing with whining employees:

  1. Gut check.  Determine what is at the root of the whining. Is there a weakness in your leadership, foundation, or employee practices?
  2. Analyze.  Small amounts of whining can and possibly should be ignored.  Making a big deal out of minor concerns may reduce the effectiveness of the organization and add fuel to a fire that would easily burn out on its own if not fanned.
  3. Listen. Forget the grapevine.  Go straight to the source of the dissatisfaction and ask questions to uncover the true reason for frustration.  Be conscious that the real issue behind the whining may not come out without probing.
  4. Contain. Keep the discussion among impacted parties and their leadership.  Running through the organization and spreading drama can unnecessarily exaggerate the issue.
  5. Action plan. Once the research is done, it is time to determine a solution.  When possible, include the impacted parties when deciding how to best handle the situation.  If they have a hand in creating the solution, they will be more likely to support it.  Determine what steps are necessary to rectify the situation and prioritize them.
  6. Let it go. Implement the steps necessary to reduce legitimate whining.  When you start working toward the solution, try to avoid revisiting the problem.  Focus on moving forward as a team.
  7. Follow up. It is wise to informally confirm that the person who was whining has become reengaged in the company’s goals.  Be conscious of nonverbal cues when determining if employees are reinvested in helping the organization.
  8. Let them go. If you find that you’re dealing with a perpetual whiner, you must decide whether or not the organization would be better off with one less employee.  You may have to let go repeat offenders who decide not to move on.  Harvey Mackay said one of his biggest lessons he learned was, “It is not the people I have fired that have caused me problems.  It is the people I should have fired and didn’t.”

Crisis, real or perceived, can propagate throughout an organization and quickly reduce productivity if not dealt with appropriately.  In the long run, being happy is a choice.  Leaders at all levels should be passionately committed to building an organization that employees would be willing to invest in financially and emotionally.  Eventually employees need to realize that their job is not prison—they have the option to get happy or get gone.

About the Author(s)

Laura Harris is a speaker and consultant who has helped business owners throughout the United States and Canada improve individual and business performance.  She is a business owner and author of Surrender to Win—Regain Sanity by Strategically Relinquishing Control (Greenleaf Publishing). For more information, visit